There's no denying it, and there's no hiding from it either: Old Man Winter is here and he's a grumpy, cantankerous buzzard. Unlike him, most seniors nowadays are living vibrant, rewarding lives in retirement. But with winter's onset, we should take a moment to review and dispel a few of the old wives' tales and rustic myths that continue to circulate about cold weather and its effect on one's overall health and constitution.
There are many, but let's discuss five of the most common among them.
Myth #1: You can get sick from cold weather.
No. You get sick because of infectious germ pathogens: bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Sickness is your body's response to these invaders. But cold weather in and of itself doesn't put them in your body.
So why does cold and flu season, for example, occur in winter? The simple answer? You're inside more, enclosed in a tighter space, hiding from the cold. The windows aren't open, so air circulates less in your home. Germs floating around in that air, or living on your home's surfaces, have more opportunities to get into your body because you are hanging around more where they live. And if other people are in the home with you, their germs can be trapped and more easily spread to you, too.
Covering coughs and sneezes, washing your hands just after coughing or sneezing (and with increased frequency throughout the day), getting enough nightly rest and keeping your home clean are the best ways to avoid catching the common cold or flu. And make sure you get your annual flu vaccination, too.
Myth #2: Allergies aren't as bad in the winter.
That depends on what you're allergic to. If you're allergic to grass pollen, ragweed, or tree pollen, then yes, your allergy symptoms are probably non-existent in the winter. But if you're allergic to mold, mildew, or dust— all of which are indoor allergens— your allergy symptoms are probably worse in the winter, because you are inside more.
Running a HEPA filter in your home and changing out the filter every couple of months, wearing a dust mask while dusting and vacuuming, and frequently cleaning your bathroom and kitchen surfaces with a bleach solution (which kills mold, mildew and other fungi) can help to alleviate indoor allergy symptoms.
Myth #3: Vitamin C can prevent colds.
Although it is important to get enough Vitamin C (the FDA's recommendation is 75 mg daily) just for your body to operate normally (and thus to make yourself less susceptible overall to diseases), increasing your Vitamin C intake over the daily recommended level is not an effective prophylaxis against a cold-causing virus. The best preventative methods, again, are covering all your coughs and sneezes, washing your hands frequently, and getting your proper rest and nutrition.
Myth #4: Chicken soup can cure colds.
Not exactly. There is no cure for the common cold. There is, however, some evidence that eating chicken soup can help to alleviate symptoms.
Chicken soup is full of healthy proteins. It provides necessary electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, which can easily be lost in sweat during the height of a fever. If colorful vegetables like carrots, celery, or leafy greens are added, it provides antioxidant nutrients that body needs to repair cellular damage cause by the virus.
And at least one study— by researchers at the University of Nebraska— found that chicken soup may have anti-inflammatory and mucus-thinning properties that vegetable soups and beef broths do not have. Cold sufferers who were fed chicken soup were found to exhibit less mucus production and suffer less severe congestion than other cold sufferers; the researchers attributed this to a slower neutrophil (the immune system cells that trigger mucus production) release, which may have been caused by a previously-unknown chemical property of chicken-based proteins.
Myth #5: A glass of spirits can keep you warm.
We've all seen St. Bernard rescue dogs, with casks of rum tied around their collars, in cartoon depictions of ski resorts in the snowy Alps. And we see that stereotypical dog because, in olden days, it was thought that drinking ethanol did make a person's blood warmer. Anyone who has had a sip of alcohol can tell you that one begins to feel an inner flush of warmth as one drinks.
But that warm, flushed feeling on your skin isn't happening because your core temp is heating up— it's actually happening because imbibing alcohol dilates capillaries and causes blood to rush toward the extremities, away from the major organs. Thus, it actually drops one's core temperature. Moreover, it impairs autonomic functions, like shivering, which the body would normally employ to prevent the onset of hypothermia.
Taking a wee nip of holiday cheer can certainly make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it's not a treatment or cure for a chill. It shouldn't be mistaken for such.
Don't believe your grandmother's tales this winter. Be smart and stay well.
The prevention of influenza is a serious concern of senior healthcare experts. Older adults are typically more susceptible to flu-related death. And the common cold, especially for someone who may already be somewhat frail, is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Institute good infection control habits this winter. Get plenty of rest, drink lots of clear fluids (water, herbal tea, or low-sugar sports drinks), and eat properly. If you begin to feel ill, don't hesitate to visit your primary care doctor and seek professional medical advice. Let's keep you living well all the way into the spring— and beyond.